Seeking help both for ourselves and fellow Jews


The prohibition of charging a fellow indigent Jew interest on a loan is one of the many subjects addressed in our parasha, Behar.

While this topic analyzed and expanded upon throughout Rabbinic thought, on the peshat-level, our pasukim are quite clear: one may not charge interest on a loan to a fellow Jew in order for “your brother [to] live with you” without additional financial stress.

An entirely different approach to the words, “v’chai achicha imach,” are offered by Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 62a: “The Gemara asks: And Rabbi Yoḥanan, what does he do with this verse: ‘And your brother shall live with you’? The Gemara answers: ‘He requires the verse for that which is taught in a baraita: If two people were walking on a desolate path and there was a jug [kiton] of water in the possession of one of them, and the situation was such that if both drink from the jug, both will die, as there is not enough water, but if only one of them drinks, he will reach a settled area, there is a dispute as to the halakha. Ben Petora taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die and let neither one of them see the death of the other.’ This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the verse states: ‘And your brother shall live with you,’ indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.”

This baraita discusses a scenario wherein one of two individuals traveling together owns a very limited supply of water. Ben Petora opines that the water must be shared so that one of them does not witness the other’s death. As such, he interprets, “in order that your brother should live (v’chai achicha),” in a literal manner and maintains that the water should be shared at all costs.

In stark contrast, Rabbi Akiba stresses the importance of the very end of our verse “with you (imach).” In his view, while you should do everything in your power to enable your fellow Jew to live, nonetheless, “chayecha kodmim l’chayeh chaveircha (your life takes precedence over your fellow Jew’s life)” when you are the sole owner of the limited resource. It should be noted that the Rif and the Rosh quote this baraita verbatim in their respective works, indicating that they concur with Rabbi Akiba’s opinion as a matter of actual halachic practice. 

As we have seen, our baraita focuses upon a case of first party possession of a scarce resource. According to Rabbi Akiba, the owner is entitled to fully exercise his rights of possession and drink the water, even though this will result in the death of his companion. At first glance, this p’sak din seems to contradict another highly celebrated position of this mishnaic period sage:

“Rabbi Akiva stated: ‘V’ahavta l’reicha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah (And you should love your neighbor as you love yourself, this is the overarching principle of the Torah)’.”

The question is clear: How can Rabbi Akiva simultaneously maintain, “chayecha kodmim l’chayeh chaveircha,” and “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah?” That is, if you maintain the first position, the second seems impossible to fulfill.

We are fortunate that the universally recognized gadol of his generation, Rav Moshe Sofer zatzal (Chatam Sofer, 1762-1839) addresses this exact question:

“If it is the case that ‘chayecha kodmim l’chayeh chaveircha,’ how is it possible to fulfill ‘v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha?’ [When Rabbi Akiva stated,] ‘chayecha kodmim l’chayeh chaveircha,’ however, this was said regarding matters that pertain to this world (b’inyanei olam hazeh), but in regard to those things that refer to Eternal Life (b’chayeh hanitzchi’yi), that is Torah study, one is obligated to teach others — even if he will diminish his own Torah study — nonetheless, he is obligated to learn with others.

“Therefore, Rabbi Akiva said: ‘zeh klal gadol baTorah,’ that is, regarding Torah study, it is the overarching principle to love your fellow Jew as you love yourself.”

In many ways, this analysis is an intellectual tour de force. The Chatam Sofer interprets the phrase, “zeh klal gadol baTorah,” in such a singular fashion that he was able to explain this ruling of Rabbi Akiva’s as referring specifically to Torah study, rather than as a universal Torah principle. In so doing, he deftly removes any seeming contradictions in Rabbi Akiva’s thought and reveals to us that “chayecha kodmim l’chayeh chaveircha” pertains to matters of this world, whereas “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha zeh klal gadol baTorah” refers solely to teaching Torah to others.

It is crucial to note that the Chatam Sofer’s unique interpretation of Rabbi Akiva’s axiom does not refer to his view regarding the mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha” per se. In this regard, I am convinced he embraced the famous words of the Rambam:

It is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort mourners, to prepare for a funeral, prepare a bride, accompany guests, attend to all the needs of a burial, carry a corpse on one’s shoulders, walk before the bier, mourn, dig a grave, and bury the dead, and also to bring joy to a bride and groom and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one carries out with his person that have no limit (gemilut chasadim sh’b’gufo sh’ain lahem shiur). Although all these mitzvot are of Rabbinic origin, they are included in the Scriptural commandment “v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha. That charge implies that whatever you would like other people to do for you, you should do for your comrade in the Torah and mitzvot.

With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may we ever participate in acts of gemilut chasadim sh’b’gufo sh’ain lahem shiur, and may we thereby bring shalom to our world. V’chane yihi awareness of how fleeting our lives are, and we must work hard to fill them with meaning.

Every seventh year is a sabbatical for the soul, and every fiftieth year, a time to recognize that we are past the zenith of our arc of life.

Fortunately, we have an even more frequent gift of time, and it is our weekly Sabbatical, Shabbat Kodesh, the Holy Sabbath.

In the cycles characterized by the number seven, we have seven years, seven sets of seven years, and the seven days of the week. Jewish mysticism offers us a multitude of meanings for the number seven, but this much is not mysterious: There is a rhythm to our lives, and part of that rhythm calls for regular times for reflection and renewal.

The intervals between such moments vary greatly in their duration. It is up for us to make the most of those moments, whether they last a day or a year.

I once heard a wise man, Rav Elya Lapian, say:

“Modern man is convinced that ‘time is money.’ Spiritual man knows that ‘time is life’.”